Members' Research Service By / April 19, 2016

Water: An increasingly scarce resource

Written by Marc Hall, Water is a vital resource underpinning all economic activity. On 19-20 April 2016, the Global Water…

© nikkytok/Shutterstock

Written by Marc Hall,

Water is a vital resource underpinning all economic activity. On 19-20 April 2016, the Global Water Summit takes place, a meeting aimed at bringing together representatives from business, utilities and government to discuss challenges in the provision of water. According to the Summit organisers, water is intrinsically connected to the economy, with droughts and periods of water scarcity raising prices for both businesses and end-users. Water stress has increased steadily in many regions of the world, including in the EU.

Water and food

Water legislation: Cost of Non-Europe Report
© nikkytok/Shutterstock

The repercussions of such variability have already been felt in a number of areas, in particular food and agriculture. Agriculture accounts for 70% of all water withdrawn by the agricultural, municipal and industrial (including energy) sectors. There are already indications that climate change has increased the costs of production. In Europe, agriculture accounts for 33% of total water use, though the percentage can reach up to 80% in some of the drier, southern regions. Water stress in the EU is steadily increasing, as a result of droughts or demand exceeding availability.

Recognising its importance, last year’s Green Week events at the European Parliament focused on water. A Cost-of Non-Europe report on EU water legislation estimates that, if fully implemented, current legislation could generate financial benefits of up to €2.8 billion per year. The same report also identifies areas for possible future EU policy action, with net benefits estimated at €25 billion per year.

Water and climate change

Climate change, as well as population growth, is placing ever greater stress on the world’s water resources, as was highlighted at last year’s Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris. The International Panel on Climate Change’s 2014 assessment stated that the effects of climate change are already affecting the water cycle. According to the UN, water is the primary medium through which climate change influences the Earth’s ecosystem and therefore people’s livelihoods and well-being, with higher temperatures and changes to extreme weather patterns affecting the availability and distribution of rainfall, snowmelt, river flows and groundwater. In many cases it is the poor who are likely to be most affected.

The complex set of inter-connected risks, including conflict, natural hazards, water shortages and state instability, require policies and actions capable of addressing stresses and uncertainty and allowing for constant adaptation. Researchers have sought therefore to bridge the gaps between different policy areas, including humanitarian aid, disaster risk reduction and climate change, finally agreeing on the term ‘resilience‘, defined as the ability of a society to recover from stresses and shocks.

Water and conflict

The link between water insecurity and conflict is well-established. Limited rainfall and access to water, which is also vital to food production, can lead to inter-community tension and violent clashes. Conflict can, in turn, worsen access to water, with fear of violence preventing civilians from accessing their usual sources. Water’s importance to life and economic activity also means that it can become a tool in conflict, one or more of the sides preventing access or destroying water infrastructure. Lack of access to water has been linked to conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and other dry regions.

Water resources in the Aral Sea Basin
Water resources in the Aral Sea Basin

Access and distribution of water resources has been an issue within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1967. A number of factors explain the strain on water resources, including fighting and population increases in the Palestinian community. Water consumption also reflects stark inequalities, with residents in Gaza and the West Bank at particular risk of water insecurity. Military conflict in Gaza in the summer of 2014 left over a million residents without access to water.

Conflicting needs and priorities between upstream and downstream countries has posed a threat to regional stability in Central Asia since the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Countries in the region are divided into ‘energy-poor but water-rich’ upstream countries (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan), and ‘energy-rich but water-poor’ downstream countries (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan). For example, downstream states are concerned that upstream state projects to improve electricity supplies, such as the creation of hydroelectric dams, may hinder their access to water for agriculture.

Access to clean water and sanitation is also a major concern within the context of the conflict in Syria.

The Right to Water

Access to water is a firmly established human right recognised by the United Nations General Assembly and is enshrined in a number of international conventions, such as the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights issued in 2003 a General Comment on the Right to Water, which it describes as ‘indispensable for leading a life in human dignity’ and a ‘prerequisite for the realisation of other human rights’. An analysis by the European Parliament’s Directorate-General for External Policies argues for the EU to take a human rights perspective on water conflict, guided by principles of access and non-discrimination.

The first European Citizens’ Initiative, by which the public can call on the European Commission to propose legislation, to receive over one million signatures focused on the Right to Water.


Global Water Summit 2016 website


Water in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, EPRS, January 2016

Water disputes in Central Asia: Rising tension threatens regional stability, EPRS, November 2015

Developments in international climate policy, EPRS, July 2015

Risk and resilience in foreign policy, EPRS, October 2015

Our natural resources: focus on water, EPRS, June 2015

Water for agriculture, EPRS, May 2015

Negotiating a new UN climate agreement: Challenges for the Paris climate change conference, EPRS, November 2015

COP21: Good intentions and geopolitical realities clash over the climate, EPRS, November 2015

Water use in the EU, EPRS, June 2015

European Parliament

Conflict and Cooperation over Water – The Role of the EU in Ensuring the Realisation of Human Rights, DG for External Policies, June 2015

Resource efficiency indicators, DG for Internal Policies, May 2015

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  • I’m currently studying water scarcity in my environmental economics course, and this article further exemplifies the issues arising from stress on our water supply. In David Zetland’s “Living with Water Scarcity,” he argues that strong property rights will benefit people, especially in developing countries, more than declaring a human right to water. It’s interesting to read that despite his argument, the push for human rights to water is as strong as ever in Europe and around the world.

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